Boris Johnson has come under fire over reports that he is “taking control” of the Downing Street response to coronavirus, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer demanding to know who has been in “direct control” up until now.
The prime minister insisted that he took full responsibility for the government response and said he was “proud” of its record, despite the UK recording the world’s second-highest number of coronavirus deaths.
But he offered no confirmation of media reports that he has shaken up Downing Street to reduce the influence of his controversial aide Dominic Cummings.
A report in The Daily Telegraph said that the prime minister would chair a new Covid-19 strategy committee, with key lieutenant Michael Gove heading a parallel committee in charge of operational delivery. One unnamed Tory MP said it was a move to take “direct control” of the effort.
But the move was greeted with incredulity on the opposition benches, with one Labour MP asking: “So he hasn’t been in control up to now? Who has?”
And Sir Keir asked Mr Johnson directly at prime minister’s questions: “The Telegraph is reporting that the prime minister has decided to take direct control of the government’s response to the virus. So, an obvious question for the prime minister: who has been in direct control up until now?”
Mr Johnson responded: “I take full responsibility for everything this government has been doing in tackling coronavirus and I’m very proud of our record.
“If you look at what we have achieved so far, it is very considerable. We have protected the NHS, we have driven down the death rate, we are now seeing far fewer admissions and I believe that the public understands that, with British common sense, we will continue to defeat this virus and take this country forwards.”
The exchange came as Sir Keir called on the PM to “get a grip” on the coronavirus crisis to prevent a second wave of infections, accusing the government of “winging it” on issues like testing and the easing of lockdown.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner compared Mr Johnson’s performance unfavourably with that of Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, which is set to lift lockdown restrictions next week after suffering just 22 deaths.
Responding on Twitter to reports of the changes inside No 10, Ms Rayner said: “What? I thought he has been in direct control already?
“I wonder if Dominic Cummings will be advising the PM on Covid-19 strategies? Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse!
“Meanwhile the NZ PM Jacinda Ardern has said she could lift all social-distancing measures to return the country to normal life, bar the international border closure, as early as next week? We are way behind!”
Liberal Democrat acting leader Sir Ed Davey said he “didn’t know whether to laugh or cry” at reports of the PM taking control of the Covid-19 response, adding: “Boris Johnson has just read his job description.”
And Green MP Caroline Lucas said: “Four months into the worst public health crisis for a century and the prime minister has only just taken control?
“If this is supposed to give confidence that the government’s response will now improve, it doesn’t.”
What? I thought he has been in direct control already? I wonder if Dominic Cummings will be advising the PM on #COVID19 strategies? Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse! #coronavirus 😩 https://t.co/O9qiWBZ5OS— 🌈 Angela Rayner 🌈 (@AngelaRayner)June 2, 2020
The new Covid Strategy and Covid Operations committees – codenamed CS and CO – will reportedly mirror the XS and XO committees set up within No 10 last year to deal with Brexit.
They replace four ministerial groups set up at the start of the crisis, covering foreign affairs; health; economy and business; and public services. They were each chaired by a cabinet minister.
The shake-up comes shortly after Mr Johnson appointed Duke of Cambridge aide Simon Case to the role of permanent secretary in 10 Downing Street.
The Daily Telegraph quoted an unnamed Tory MP explaining the changes: “Boris has decided that Cummings is there, but he is going to take more direct control. It is coming out of frustration – you are seeing his reawakening after a tough old time.
“Cummings is not in a brilliant place – and he must know it – and knowing that makes Boris more determined to do it himself.”